Pharmacology of Consciousness or Pharmacology of Spirituality ? A Historical Review of Psychedelic Clinical Studies, Ismael Apud, 2016

Pharmacology of Consciousness or Pharmacology of Spirituality ? A Historical Review of Psychedelic Clinical Studies

Ismael Apud

The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2016, Vol. 48, No. 2, 150-167.



In the second half of the twentieth century, when psychopharmacology was not developed as we know it today and psychoanalysis was an influential school, various psychiatrists began to develop a ‘pharmacology of consciousness,’ and became interested in hallucinogens as new paths for accessing the unconscious. However, with the psychedelic model, the pharmacology of consciousness turned also into a ‘pharmacology of spirituality,’ focused on the use of spiritual experiences as catalyzers of psychological change. This article is a historical review of the origins and development of this spiritual aspect of psychedelic research, from its beginnings in the 1950s to the ‘Renaissance of psychedelic studies’ that we have witnessed in recent decades. The guiding principle is that spiritual experiences have played a key role in psychedelic studies, shaping scientific ideas, psychotherapeutic strategies, and the ideological positions of many of the researchers interested in the clinical applications of hallucinogens.

KEYWORDS : psychedelic research, spiritual experiences, pharmacology of consciousness, pharmacology of spirituality.


Since the 1990s, we have witnessed what some authors call the ‘Psychedelic Renaissance’ (Sessa, 2012a, 2012b), after two decades of almost no clinical research on the potential psychotherapeutic uses of hallucinogens. The first studies can be traced back to the 1950s,when psychopharmacologywas not a developed discipline as we know it today, and psychoanalysis was an influential school in mainstream psychiatry. In a psychoanalytical milieu dominated by the idea of unveiling the unconscious, hallucinogens aroused the curiosity of psychiatrists, as a new way to access the unconscious,which was faster than free association. Itwas a ‘pharmacology of consciousness,’ interested in the therapeutic effects derived from the analysis of the subjective experience in altered states of consciousness (henceforth ASCs) rather than the pharmacological action itself. However, with the psychedelic model, the pharmacology of consciousness subsequently became a ‘pharmacology of spirituality,’ and some ASCs were recognized as transcendental experiences, which were the main catalysts for psychological therapeutic changes. The connection between psychopharmacological drugs and spirituality was an important influence in the transpersonal paradigm, in which experiences beyond the body and ordinary reality began to be considered as ontologically valid. The idea was that changing the brain’s chemistry allows us to access different spiritual realities, which Thomas Roberts (2006) calls ‘pharmatheology,’ and Nicolas Langlitz (2013) calls ‘neurospirituality.’

In this article, spiritual experiences will be considered using a generic definition, as those related to ASCs in which the subject experiences a reality different from the ordinary material world. In these kind of states, consciousness is experienced as independent of the natural world, and interacting in a spiritual realm. Sometimes the experience includes supernatural agents, other times it can be related to feelings of transcendence, awe, wholeness, joy. The term ASCs was coined by the psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig (1966), who attempted to scientifically understand the complex cultural variation of experiences and procedures involved in those states. It was subsequently popularized by Charles Tart within a transpersonal paradigm, in which both altered and ordinary states of consciousness were considered equally reliable sources of knowledge (Tart, 1969, 1971, 1972). ASCs occur in more than 90% of the world’s cultures (Bourguignon, 1980), and usually involve chemical and/or nonchemical techniques. These experiences include communication with supernatural beings, possession, mystical experiences, communication with divinity, shamanic trances, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, cosmic journeys, remembrances of other lives and death-and-rebirth experiences, among others. Some authors place these heterogenic experiences in a common broad category. Others scholars stress the diversity of experiences, or the attribution of meaning to the experience as the key element in defining its spiritual or religious quality (for a review of the topic, see Czachesz, 2017).

This article is a review of the spiritual aspect of the history of psychedelic research. The guiding idea is that spiritual experiences have played an essential role since the beginnings of psychedelic studies. These experiences have shaped scientific ideas, psychotherapeutic strategies, and the ideological position of many of the scholars interested in the clinical applications of hallucinogens. Furthermore, these experiences were not only observed in the experimental subjects or patients, but also experienced by the researchers themselves. Most of them created a strong commitment to spiritual perspectives, since these phenomenological experiences gave factuality to spiritual beliefs. Thinking of the psychedelic model in terms of a pharmacology of spirituality implies considering it as an academic hybrid, between science and religion.

The article starts with the beginnings of pharmacology of consciousness, and its relation with a psychoanalytic perspective, which became popular in the first half of twentieth century. The second section continues with the emergence of the psychedelic model, which assumed a pharmacology of consciousness especially concerned with spiritual experiences, mainly after Osmond & Hoffer’s observations in their studies of alcoholism. The third part describes how these new academic spiritual perspectives contributed to the countercultural movements of the 1960s, and describes the beginnings of censorship in hallucinogen studies. The final section covers the renaissance of psychedelic studies in the 1990s, describing the general context, and then focusing on the specific case of some new treatment centers, considered as cultural hybrids of western and non-western therapeutic and spiritual practices.